The Potential Long Term Effects of Tampons By: Anupama Satish
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Description: The female body is a beautiful thing. The body of a woman has many functions and is a wonder of nature. From having periods to giving birth to breastfeeding, a woman and her body should be protected and safe from harm. The menstrual cycle, commonly known as periods, is a normal bodily function that includes the shedding of the uterine lining, or the endometrium, from the uterus and the disposal of an unused egg. This is a monthly occurrence and is the body's way of preparing for pregnancy (Stanford Children's Health). To help with this natural occurrence, many products have been produced to allow women to comfortably move along their day without their periods getting in the way. Of these products, tampons are one of the most commonly used. Having been invented in 1933, tampons are still considered a relatively new invention and as such, the long-term effects of their usage are still unknown (Nuñez, 2020). Tampons are designed to be cotton cylinders that are cased in a plastic applicator which, when inserted in the vaginal canal, will absorb the tissue and blood for up to eight hours (Anderson, 2019). Many tampon companies have also been known to include detrimental ingredients such as fragrance, bleach, aluminum, alcohol, and hydrocarbons (Thompson, 2012). One disease that people are at risk of getting when they use tampons is TSS (Toxic Shock Syndrome), which is a life-threatening bacterial infection (“Toxic Shock Syndrome”). Other than that, there have not been many other findings regarding diseases or side effects caused by tampons. There is very limited research on these chemicals and many people are not aware that tampons contain such toxic chemicals. The reason behind this is that not many people know of the way tampons are manufactured due to the low transparency from many companies. Moreover, even if they are aware, many people cannot afford to abandon these products because they are usually cheaper, more convenient, and more comfortable. Tampons that are cleared by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) are primarily made of either cotton or rayon or both (Office of the Commissioner). A major ingredient in tampons and other menstrual products is wood pulp, which are absorbent fibers that are put through an elemental chlorine-free bleaching process to remove dioxin, a pollutant found in the environment. Though this bleaching process rids the wood pulp of most dioxins, there is no guarantee that all of it is gone. One article states, “The amount of dioxin conventional tampons contain varies between 0.1 and 1 part per trillion, FDA figures show” (Knopper, 2003). The amount of dioxin needed to be toxic in a human is stated to be, “In animal studies, dioxins are routinely used at very low doses of 1g/kg body weight per day, whereas other common types of chemical toxins are usually used at a dose of 1 mg/kg/day. Since various harmful effects have been observed even with this low dose, dioxins have the reputation of being deadly poisonous.” (Wada, 2002). This means that conventional tampons should not have the amounts of dioxin needed to be toxic to humans, though this has not been proven. Dioxins, also known as POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants), are extremely toxic to the body and can cause many short-term as well as long-term effects. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the short-term effects of dioxins may include patchy discoloration in skin, skin lesions, or altered liver function. Long-term effects include the potential for dioxin to attack organs within the nervous system, the reproductive system, the immune system, as well as the endocrine system. WHO also states, “Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer” (WHO, 2016). The NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information)’s research from 2002 involved the analysis of four different brands of tampons and their dioxin concentrations. They reported back that “None of the products contained 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, the most potent dioxin, although other dioxins were present at detectable concentrations in all samples”(Devito & Schecter, 2002). Their research concluded that though trace amounts of dioxins may be found in sanitary products such as tampons, the amount is not significant enough to cause dioxin exposures. The NCBI, as well as the FDA, attest to the low dioxin concentrations in these tampons, for example, it states in the NCBI article called “Exposure assessment to dioxins from the use of tampons and diapers.”, it states, “The refined exposure analysis indicates that exposures to dioxins from tampons are approximately 13,000-240,000 times less than dietary exposures”. (Devito & Schecter, 2002). As a part of this research paper, an experiment was conducted to test how much residue could potentially leave a tampon. This was not done to disprove or confirm these organizations’ claims, but rather experiment using simple ingredients, to look into what may possibly be the effect of tampons. The hypothesis was that if tampons are used regularly, then the dioxins in the tampon would be more apparent in the vaginal canal. As a part of the experiment, a regular-sized Tampax pearl tampon was used and a droplet of orange food dye (color code: Hex#ff4500) was dropped on it using a pipette. Orange food dye was used because it is made of coal tar (Rohrig, 2015), and coal is a commonly found dioxin (Environmental Protection Agency). The tampon was then submerged in 1 cup of water. Water was used as the solvent in this experiment as a representation of the menstrual environment because as the University of Texas states, “The majority of these secretions are mostly made up of water and electrolytes such as sodium or potassium” (Casia, 2019). There was little to no change in the color of the water. After four hours, the tampon was taken out and replaced by a new, identical tampon with one droplet of orange food dye in it, and placed in the same water. The water turned a little bit more orange. This process was repeated 3 more times at 4-hour intervals, at which the water was almost fully orange in color. This experiment then went through Trial 2, where the same experiment was conducted with the same ingredients and the results were fairly the same, the changes being after tampon 1 and after tampon 2, where it showed a slightly darker tint than in Trial 1. The last trial was Trial 3, where the first tampon showed a lighter hue than the other two trials, the second tampon showed the same hue as the first trial and the third tampon showed a darker hue than both of the other trials. The control of this experiment was a tampon without dye that would be submerged in water and replaced by another tampon every 4 hours, where the result was relatively clear water after each interval. This data is represented in Table 1 which is attached below. In this experiment, the orange dye symbolized the dioxin in the tampon and the water symbolized the vaginal canal. Though this experiment was not an entirely accurate representation of a tampon in the vaginal canal, it was conducted to test a basic principle. From this experiment, it could be observed that as more tampons with the orange food dye were submerged in the water, the darker the hue of orange the water became. A question that came up in the later stages of the experiment was: though many companies and administrations have found that the traces of dioxin in individual tampons are not harmful, would the sum of the dioxin emitted from multiple tampons worn throughout the day be harmful? The research done found that dioxins are a risk to people, and traces of it are often found in tampons which may cause long-term effects on the body. These effects are mostly detrimental to one’s reproductive health, though the tampons themselves have not yet been proven to have negative effects. The data from the experiment done supports the hypothesis because the dye residue, representing the dioxins, became more apparent in the solvent, representing the vaginal canal, with greater usage of tampons. Further research would help provide more accurate data to support this conclusion as well as provide evidence for the long-term effects of dioxins in tampons.